Impressions of Spring 1990: Travelling salesman in Leipzig [39/40]



March 14 1990
Created By: Michael Westdickenberg

License: Not Creative Commons


group of people, merchandize, trade (commerce)


civil rights movement, Coca-Cola, contract worker, deterioration, election campaign, freedom of speech, friend, German Mark, German reunification, journey, panel building, pollution, right-wing extremism, social market economy, Volkskammer election, We are one people!


Dessau, Halle (Saale), Leipzig

Other items in this set


"We visited a friend in West Berlin in February 1990. The visit unfolded in a rather unexpected way because we ended up spending each day travelling around the Eastern part of the city and returning to the West to sleep. It was a time of rapid political and social change and the power vacuum in the then still existent GDR was definitely noticeable. Being West German with no relatives in the GDR, I had never been able to travel in this country without restriction before. Given that we had a semester break at the time, I decided to take a trip around the GDR for two weeks and capture my impressions on film. This marked the beginning of a photo project I still pursue today.

I recorded my impressions as if the pictures were supposed to recount my experiences to friends living in different parts of the world. Needless to say, I was always aware that my view couldn't be anything but subjective - starting with the actual choice of motifs and what that expressed. However, my aim was also to take pictures that were of a documentary standard.

One of the themes that struck me most at the beginning was the shocking state of disrepair of the old buildings. At the time, it was said of the town of Halle that a flat a day was rendered uninhabitable as a result of neglect. The motto 'preserve what we've got and improve it' obviously didn't apply to old houses. 'People still live here' read one sign above the entrance door; presumably so as not to scare visitors away. Some people living in a house in Dessau came down to where I was standing on the pavement and told me that they'd already had to move twice - they'd moved down through the house from the upper floors in order to get away from the damp coming in through the roof.

The urban antithesis of the neglected old buildings was the industrial apartment construction in the form of prefabricated high-rise buildings. The flats in these large estates were much prized in the GDR since they, in contrast to many old buildings, had central heating, running hot water, a bathtub and private facilities. Furthermore, the prefabricated high-rises weren't bleak, although their uniformity didn't serve to make them any less depressing. In the GDR they were sometimes satirized as 'workers lockers'.

On occasion, the gaudily coloured cars and the standardized grey brown of the housing made for wonderful contrasts. I wondered whether I had in fact uncovered a craving for expressive shades of colour in many people from the GDR; something that I'd put down to a reaction to the environment they lived in. In this respect, East and West couldn't have been more different because it was exactly these kind of muted colours that were the rage in West Germany.

But the uniform beige-brown facades seen in small towns and villages sometimes had a completely different effect, especially when illuminated by the warm afternoon sun. There was a certain cosiness about it that seemed to express its own perception of time - almost as if the country would resist all pressure and supposed necessities, and exist as a self-sustaining part of this world.

The dark facades also point to another problem, namely the air pollution caused by brown coal emissions and exhaust fumes from two-stroke engines and motorbikes. When it was cold and people had the heating on, this smell hung in the air wherever I went, even in the smallest of villages. The pollution was particularly bad in the area surrounding the Buna plant near Halle. Workers told me that a set of traffic lights situated right next to the plant used to break down regularly because it'd clog up with carbide dust.

Initially, I was interested in the unchanged state of this unknown neighbouring country. But after a while, I also realised that it wasn't enough to focus solely on what was characteristic of the GDR. Another set of issues had to be looked at too, namely the changes which came in the wake of the open borders, the collapse of the East German Communist Party, the looming market economy and the West's political influence. For weeks the election campaign had defined the elections for the People's Parliament which took place on 18 March 1990 - the first free national elections voted by secret ballot in the Eastern part of Germany since 6 November 1932. The elections also marked the end of my first extended trip in the GDR. During the campaign, German flags indicated a commitment to unification with the Federal Republic, while red or GDR flags denoted a desire for the country to pursue an independent socialist approach that was more or less comparable with the previous system. The manner in which a man working at a petrol station in Dessau demanded unification was not too different to how he asked his customers to turn off their engines. I was under the impression that people in the GDR were generally more authoritarian in the way they went about their everyday business than was the case in the Federal Republic. The 'Cologne Wailing Wall', built in Leipzig in March 1990 and a place for people to put up posters communicating social protests and wishes, represented, in my opinion, the hope for a future right to open and uncensored freedom of expression - and not only for those in power.

During the election campaign, the associations and parties formed by people involved in the citizens movement and responsible for initiating the fall from power of the East German Communist Party, were ever more marginalised - and to the advantage of parties supported by West Germany. People often expressed the following wish, 'We'd like things to be like they are in the Federal Republic'. In the last phase of the Monday demonstrations, the slogan, 'We are one people', increasingly came to replace the initial, 'We are the people'. The emphasis on national solidarity as well as German and regional traditions, whilst totally evading the GDR period, was, I believe, to become one of the key cultural currents in the years that followed. And in the wake of this, nationalistic, racist and social Darwinist sentiments strengthened and were aimed at contract workers from Angola, Mozambique and Vietnam on a scale previously unknown. Asylum seekers, Sinti and Romanies, Turkish takeaway owners, dark-skinned people, leftists and the homeless were also amongst those not spared such attentions.

Another significant development was the alignment with the USA, although this was only noticeable in bursts in 1989/90.
Being pioneers of the market economy, travelling hawkers from Western countries sold fruit or low-quality products at markets in Deutsch Marks – people didn't have much in that currency yet since the GDR Mark remained in circulation until 30 June 1990. People were so enthused by the plastic watches a trader sold for less than DM 10 apiece at a market stall in Leipzig that they didn't even notice me taking photos. In view of the market economy's anticipated success, the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism and successor to East Germany's ruling party, the SED) organized a discussion forum on the subject in Dessau. A consultant from the Dessau Vacine Research Institute was also invited - as if thereby telegraphing that the market economy had something to do with an epidemic. It was striking to see how many luxury cars were in circulation in the GDR in spring 1990. For Western companies, it was considered wise to pitch their claims as soon as they could, so as not to miss out on a share of the future market. And it wasn't long before company signs, which had traditionally symbolized Western capitalism, secured their first branches in the East. Seeing a can of Coke in a vending machine didn't represent anything exciting for someone who had grown up in the West. However, in 1990, in Leipzig, seeing a vending machine was a sensation in itself. I learned how to look at symbols I was familiar with through the eyes of someone from the GDR. Otherwise put, a battered Coca Cola can on a road in Wittenberge didn't have the same significance as perhaps one lying somewhere in Hamburg or Dortmund."

Michael Westdickenberg

Michael Westdickenberg is still continuing his project "Photos from GDR/the
newly-formed German States 1990–2010"

Original Caption

"Travelling salesman selling cheap watches"